Friday, October 12, 2012

Isn't It Great To Be Savvy?

Updated Below

Yesterday I came across a fascinating compilation of various establishment media outlets' recommendations about what viewers should heed in last night's vice presidential debate.  The compilation was fascinating not for its substance (there was none), but for its exclusive focus on style.  Have a look yourself:  here's CNN, Politico, Reuters, USA Today, and The Washington Post, each recommending the most important things they can come up with about what American voters should attend to in a vice presidential debate.

Now, I'm not sure why these so-called journalists believe what should matter most to voters is whether "Biden can draw blood" or whether "Ryan will let his feel-your-pain-flag fly" (as opposed to, say, whether the candidates believe the president has the right to unilaterally start wars, imprison and execute citizens without due process, etc).  It could be because the media outlets in question are so shallow they're on the verge of evaporating.  It could be they recognize that what the Democratic and Republican parties have in common so eclipses the parties' differences that virtually the only meaningful distinctions one can make are about style.  It could be sloth.  It could be a combination of the foregoing.

The best explanation I've come across for the American establishment media's obsession with trivia is from media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen, who argues that the true ideology of the establishment media is a devotion to savvy.  Who cares whether a policy is substantively good or bad?  The only thing worth considering is whether articulating the policy will be an effective political tactic.  Who cares if a politician lies?  What matters is whether the lie was clever.

And Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has a related column today, analyzing the obscured but enormous biases of the moderator of last night's vice presidential debate.

As interesting as it is to speculate about the origins of the establishment media's ostensibly objective, trivia-obsessed worldview, we should also note its pernicious effect, which is to train the citizenry to not question whatever America's two major parties agree on (which is almost everything), and to believe style is more important than substance.  I'm continually amazed -- and depressed -- at the way citizens ape the values of the establishment media that feeds them their news.  By way of anecdotal example, a month or so ago I was trapped in small talk at a dinner party table and, to save myself, asked the other guests who they'd be voting for in November (yes, you're right, you probably don't want to invite me to a dinner party).  Since the party was in the Bay Area, I wasn't surprised that everyone planned to vote for Obama.  I then asked what everyone thought was the worst thing Obama had done as president.  The response was fascinating:  with one exception, my dinner companions talked only about style and tactics.  Obama shouldn't have given Congress so much leeway in crafting health insurance reform legislation.  He should have been harder on Mitch McConnell.  Etc.  I asked, What about Obama's illegal, unconstitutional war in Libya?  This too produced an interesting response:  rather than arguing that, say, the war wasn't illegal or unconstitutional, everyone reflexively claimed that the war was well executed and had a good outcome.  Even if all that were true, where did these otherwise well-educated American citizens get their notion that whether a policy is smart is more important than whether it's legal?  Or that failing to criticize Mitch McConnell is worse than unilaterally executing a 16-year-old American citizen, or failing to prosecute even a single banker for fraud, or a single politician for ordering torture?

Watch CNN, or pick up the Washington Post, or examine any other establishment media organ, and you'll have your answer.

Update:  Seeking to prove my point, here's the New York Times' front page article on last night's debate.  The headline:  "Show of Teeth Spurs a Debate Over Biden."  The lede:  "Thursday’s vice-presidential slugfest has quickly become a debate about Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s grin."  As though the Times' own coverage has nothing to do with what the "debate" is about.


R.J. Chastain said...

I've long tooted the horn that journalism died along time ago... meaning of course, most mainstream media is nothing but observations of the mundane and petty. In their defense though, it's all the majority cares about...

But of course, you bring up valid points that neither side really has different issues, just different styles. This is obvious to anyone who bothers to actually research (which is few).

I have a question though, are we too screwed to change? (I'm poetic, I know.)

I nearly puked over the blind hate over WILILEAKS and Asange. And it really shows where people stand in regards to having real info be in the debate. But it scares me deep down about the quality of discourse in this country.

Have we fallen so deeply asleep that what these debates pass as real debates? That these two candidates pass as different people?

Is there any hope or will we die in ignorance?

makenwords said...

I've read (lurked) actually for a long time over your columns. Usually, we tend to be on opposite sides of an issue. With the media however, I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is no substance, there is no reporting of the news, there is unequivocal bias (on both sides, and few facts to be gleaned.

I must say, I would love to have the opportunity to attend such a dinner party. I think we would stand a chance of being 60-minutes new (point/counterpoint).

Great post!

Juan Carlos Paredes said...

Good points. What venues other than yours would we benefit from reading.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I don't know if America's reached a tipping point. But I think it's important to keep fighting regardless -- otherwise, you just create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, our dignity should just require it.

As for who to read, I think Glenn Greenwald has about the best political and media commentary around:

FlyinWildcat said...

Thoughtful post. Thanks to a previous post I read Glenn Greenwald's "With Liberty and Justice for Some". Great read!!

Easydoesit said...

I sympathize with your position and certainly think your examples are persuasive. It is all about the game and how it's played and the media fail constantly in their primary obligation of informing the citizenry regarding substantive facts in order to make intelligent decisions.
I do disagree somewhat with your view that there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. It is true that they both serve the plutocrats interests to an alarming degree, but the Republicans do it out of core belief and the Democrats out of a perceived necessity. On the economy, the social safety net, the environment, health care, regulation, etc. the Democrats are far more "humane." The Republican party has gone lunatic and the danger and damage possible if they regain Presidential and Congressional power now is beyond the pale.
That is why I will vote for Obama, despite the truth in your assessment of his security strategies. I think he thinks it's better than another war, which will be demanded if there is another major terrorist attack. The American people, by and large, support whatever makes them feel safe, including torture.
There is an argument that a Romney win might bring things to a crisis point from which true positive change might finally be possible, but my reading of history says this is awfully dangerous, that there are too many right wing fanatics in this country who will take a worsening economy and culture as a call to arms.
Anyway, I'd love to have you as a dinner party guest. I find most people are all too squeamish and conformist about discussing politics and we need more civic civil discourse.
Finally, I find your essays engaging, bracing. Keep up the good work.

ryan field said...

I'm the classic swing voter, and I'm always frustrated by what I see in mainstream media. At this point, I do not know how I'm voting in a few weeks. I tend to lean far left in some cases, and right in others. So I usually have to sacrifice something when I vote.

I tend to think they (the media) are all hanging on by a thin thread these days, fighting to remain relevant in a world where more people are getting information online than from TV, newspapers, or magazines.

I'm not looking forward to the next debate that Candy Crowley is moderating. She's playing nice now, pretending to be the objective journalist, but I cannot forget how she behaved in 2008 during the primaries. She is one of the main reasons I stopped watching CNN altogether in 2008.

Travis said...

I think the points in this post are largely accurate but I also think you underestimate the "demand" side of the equation.

If people wanted news that was more then trivia that's what they would be getting. This isn't to say that what the media provides doesn't copndition people as well but rather that it's more of a feedback loop then a one way cause/effect.

D. William said...

A large part of the problem with the media today is that they have to fill 24 hours of airtime and mouse clicking. We listened to 3 days of discussion about Biden's teeth and Ryan's water drinking habits for god's sake. Part of it can be traced to the emptiness of the reporters or the fact that they're "so shallow they're on the verge of evaporating" but I'm sure it's also partly related to the fact that they need to talk about something and these nonsense topics fill time. Further, the obsession in America with style is overwhelming. What "Beyonce wore to Starbucks" competes head to head with "Drone strike kills 40 civilians in Pakistan". I'm no expert but I'd venture a guess that the first title gets more clicks than the second. The media has become an entertainment outlet as opposed to a news reporting entity and so because "style" sells, that's what is reported. What's the antidote?

aktenny said...

Antidote? It's like having Celiac disease. There is no antidote.

You must simply stop consuming.

A.Rosaria said...

European mass Media is also deteriorating rapidly into vapor. The only media worth anything are the indie media outlets.

The world economy is crumbling and we are on the verge of another world war and the mass media stay pretty silent about it and if they happen to report something related it's skewed.

Obama and Romney are the same, because whomever gets to be president he will continue the current policies of eroding freedom (not much left) and preparing/instigating war.